Yesterday Mitchell Glieber, the president of the State Fair of Texas, released a startling statement. Responding to a proposal put forward by Boston-based planner Antonio Di Mambro that completely rethinks the layout and use of Fair Park, the State Fair said that adopting such a plan would “effectively end the 129-year tradition of the State Fair of Texas in Dallas.”
Sound the alarms! Raise the flags! The State Fair could leave Fair Park! How did we get here?
As you remember, in the spring of 2013 the mayor established a task force to rethink Fair Park. After more than 20 closed-door meetings, the task force came up with one new/old suggestion: hand over the park’s operations to a private non-profit entity. Currently Dallas’ Park Board is discussing the recommendation. A resolution will likely reach the council on the matter after the May elections.
Then, Di Mambro released his own plan. The Di Mambro plan essentially calls for dividing Fair Park into four sections. It would remove Gexa Energy Pavilion, eliminate a section of the Cotton Bowl, and repurpose the historic Art Deco buildings as an “educational complex/innovation district” or a “retail marketplace.” Looking over the plans, the intent appears to be to make Fair Park more of, well, a park, with greater connectivity to the surrounding neighborhoods, year-round uses, and lots of green space. A “park for the people,” as the plan puts it.
Di Mambro’s plan doesn’t kick out the State Fair of Texas, but it does propose moving the fair to a 93-acre section of the park. Currently, the State Fair operates in 277 acres. So, you can see why the fair would alarmed.
But why is such a powerful and established organization like the State Fair taking a random, unsolicited mock-up of a new Fair Park so seriously, particularly when the mayor already has one of his task force’s working on the matter?
Well, let’s pause for a second a look at the timing of all of this. The pitchman on Di Mambro’s Fair Park proposal is Don Williams, the founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment and the former chairman of the Trammell Crow Company. Williams is also a co-founder of Coalition for a New Dallas (along with D Magazine publisher Wick Allison), a political action committee that is raising money for city council candidates in the May elections. The Di Mambro plan very much steps on the toes of Rawlings’ task force, and it pushes a point about urban planning within the context of a heated campaign season.
For his part, Rawlings said the plan put the cart before the horse. First we have to figure out how to hand over Fair Park to a private entity, he said. The State Fair has also said that it supports the mayor’s task force, which suggests that they don’t have any fears about the task force coming up with any ideas that would monkey too much with the status quo.
For my part, I kind of like the Di Mambro plan. The fact that it has the State Fair quaking in their boots feels to me like an indication that the thinking is headed in the right direction. The State Fair is an albatross around Fair Park’s neck, and by extension, an impediment to the future success of South Dallas. The fair ensures the continued need to maintain the park’s current function as a giant concrete entertainment island plopped in the heart of South Dallas with little use or interaction with the surrounding neighborhoods. It is walled-off by concrete parking lots and iron fencing, and sealed off during its special events. The State Fair says the Di Mambro plan would end a 129-year-old tradition, to which I say, good riddance. Maybe the fair could just move to Fort Worth.
But here’s a full disclosure: I’m not from here. I grew up in New York, and a part of New York in particular that looks a long way down its snobby Yankee nose at things like state and county fairs. I’ve been to the Texas State Fair a handful times, and my experience was not unlike the one recounted in David Foster Wallace’s essay “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” about the author’s own trip to the Illinois State Fair—a kind of jarring encounter with garish, self-aggrandized consumer Americana played out in a pageantry of sweaty, American Gothic kitsch.
I’m not trying to lose your good favor, dear Dallas readers, just trying to be transparent. If the Texas State Fair packed up and moved away, I wouldn’t care one bit. To me Fair Park always struck me as what could and should be Dallas’s Flushing Meadows Park, which I lived up the hill from as a kid and remember walking across to go to my first baseball game at Shea Stadium, where I saw Pete Rose manage and play first base at the same time for the Reds. I say this not because I am one of those transplants who simply wants to remake this city in the shape of the one from which I came. I say it because my experience of how an urban park functions – how it can shape, give form to, and create the life of the city that surrounds it – seems to me of more value to South Dallas and Dallas-at-large than a place that is shackled with the obligation of having to be the temporary home of prized hogs every fall.
But then my childhood memories of Flushing Meadows serve only as a reminder that we gather our affections for the places we live through our experience of our own personal histories. For many of you, I’m sure, the State Fair is not some alien encounter with a cartoonish vision of Texas reworked as carny melodrama. Rather, it is your father handing you your first corn dog, or the light in your daughter’s face as she enters the Midway, or your sweaty palm in the clutched hand of some adorable 14-year-old who sits next to you in a locked cage, rocking high over the twinkling Dallas skyline. In other words, whereas I wouldn’t mind seeing Fair Park remade in the image of a vibrant urban park, that same transformation may strike you as gross sacrilege upon the very soul of this city.
And so, with that, it’s time for another completely unscientific poll, a readership show of hands. I’m curious. In light of this new proposal, what do you think about the State Fair leaving Fair Park? Let us know: